Dozens of nurses packed into a City Council hearing Wednesday to sound the alarm over dangerously low staffing levels.
These shortages have been decried before, during and after the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Prior to hours of testimony Wednesday afternoon, the nurses and their union, the New York State Nurses Association, held a protest on the steps of City Hall to demand hospitals increase staffing levels and offer them a fair deal in their ongoing contract negotiations with executives.
“Without the oversight and accountability of the state and the city elected officials, they will do the bare minimum. We need the elected officials to help us,” said NYSNA President Nancy Hagans.
“They will staff at the bare minimum. They will reduce our health care to the bare minimum. They will treat nurses as expendable — not essential. In short, they will put profit over patients.”
Later that day, during her testimony before the Council’s Hospitals Committee, Hagans cited the declining number of nurses throughout the state — due in part to burn out and long-COVID — as well as a city comptroller report that found more than 4,300 COVID-related deaths would likely have been prevented if four-to-one patient-to-nurse staffing ratios were implemented during the height of the pandemic.
“These numbers tell the tale of decades of negligence and failed practices,” she said.
Vivienne Phillips, a registered nurse at Kingsbrook Jewish Medical Center, which falls under the One Brooklyn Health umbrella, described dangerously thin staffing levels right now and having to work under patient-to-nurse ratios of 8 to 1 in Kingsbrook’s acute rehab unit.
Until very recently, she said that about 90% of the nurses working at the hospital were “agency” nurses — essentially freelancers without the same level of benefits as more permanent staffers.
“If you have eight patients to take care of, you’re not capturing everything,” she said.
This, she said, is further exacerbated by the way management calculates what level of staffing is needed. For instance, Phillips said that if a patient is coming in for rehab after a stroke, that will be the only condition that’s accounted for when estimating the level of care needed — even if a patient has other conditions that may interact with a rehab regimen.
One Brooklyn Health did not return calls seeking a response to Phillips’ remarks.
Lorraine Ryan, a senior vice president with the Greater New York Hospital Association, which represents hospitals in both the city and throughout the region, claimed during her testimony that hospitals “don’t have the funding to actually ensure that some of these problems are addressed adequately.”
When Councilwoman Sandy Nurse (D-Brooklyn) brought up executive pay, citing the millions of dollars in annual compensation hospital executives in the city make, and asked why such compensation is necessary compared to nurses’ wages, Ryan appeared flummoxed.
“You can’t compare a CEO’s salary to a nurse’s salary, per se,” she said. “Hospital CEO compensation reflects the, um, the level of competition that the region bears. Um, it reflects the need for skills and leadership necessary to operate large, very complex organizations that are open 24-7, um, and that, um, are often the largest employer in the community. So, they’re, I’m just giving you, you know, background on understanding the context of your question. I can’t answer your question specifically.”
Exactly what the City Council can, or is willing, to do to address nurses’ concerns remains unclear.
Council Speaker Adrienne Adams, who spoke at the protest outside City Hall, told the Daily News the primary tool the Council can employ is oversight, but that she also plans to explore the potential for new policies.
“We’re also taking a look at, of course, continuing to speak with our nurses, our advocates around more legislation,” she said. “We will continue to work with our state partners to figure this out, to do the best by our nurses. I think that there’s still more that can be done.”
Adams did not outline what those new policies might be, but one possible direction the Council might take is pursuing legislation from Manhattan Councilwoman Julie Menin that would hit hospitals with financial penalties if they don’t provide pricing data that’s now nearly impossible for the public to access.
Councilwoman Mercedes Narcisse (D-Brooklyn), a retired nurse and chair of the body’s Hospitals Committee, is focusing on another approach: engaging hospital CEOs.
“I have been doing it,” she said, but added that the Council’s oversight function is likely to be more effective. “We need to expose folks for what they’re doing, and if they’re doing something wrong, that’s the best way.”
Hagans offered another suggestion during her testimony when she pointed to hospitals with non-profit, tax-exempt status.
“The city should look at their tax exemptions and use its zoning and regulatory power to make them improve working conditions and patient care,” she said.